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Music, mindfulness among changes set by new principal in Portage

September 12, 2018

Music played at John Muir Elementary School when Principal Jen Garrigan greeted students in the hallways Monday morning.

Portage High School senior Kaylin Brandsma stopped playing guitar only to demonstrate new chords for fifth-grader and fellow musician Lilian Manthey, the music continuing as Garrigan complimented students on their new haircuts or necklaces or academic achievements already posted for viewing on a wall near the office.

“Be yourself,” Brandsma advised Manthey.

This school year Garrigan’s students will hear live music every Monday, one of several new features at John Muir.

“It gives them a nice and calming start to their week,” she said of the practice.

Garrigan – who last week started her first year as the school’s principal – is also bringing retired educators into the school building every Tuesday to work with fifth-graders on vocabulary and reading. She’s starting Academic Students of the Week, too, and expanding the Mindfulness Spaces and Calming Corners that she started as the school’s dean of students last year.

“In general I want everybody to know what a dedicated staff we have at John Muir,” Garrigan said of the 2018-19 school year. When she entered her office that morning, Brandsma sang “Happy Birthday” to her over the school’s intercom.

“They’re all leaders here. They’re going for it,” she continued.

Garrigan replaces Jason Meyer as principal, who last week started as the new principal of Rusch Elementary. Garrigan has been an employee of the Portage Community School District since 1995, teaching preschool, kindergarten and first and second grade before becoming dean of students at John Muir in 2017.

“We look at every student individually and we celebrate their differences,” she said of the approach at John Muir. Mindfulness plays a big role in what leaders emphasize at John Muir, said Criss Shaben, the new dean of students. She recently took charge of the Sensory Room that Garrigan started last year, turning it into an “enchanted forest.”

“I really just piggybacked what Jen did,” Shaben said of the room that gives students up to 10 minutes to calm down. Sand and water features as well as a tent give them the impression of being outside, and the Calming Corners in every classroom provide similar opportunities for sensory regulation. Calming Corners provide them more academic tools this school year, Garrigan noted, including arts and crafts and reading.

“I have a lead on a loom,” Shaben said of her idea to eventually allow students who visit the sensory room to weave their thoughts and ideas into one big creative display. Shaben said she sees the positive results of the sensory room frequently.

It’s more than a tool to combat anxiety, Shaben said, “It gives them a chance to be a kid again.”

“It empowers them to get back on track in a safe environment,” Garrigan said. Mindfulness measures are still catching on in various schools across the state.

“It means different things to different people,” Garrigan said. The research into mindfulness is strong and getting stronger, and the best part is “students making connections with staff members.”

Fifth-grade teacher Dave Carpenter counted himself among the staff members excited about Garrigan’s leadership. Carpenter, in his 32nd year of teaching at the school, worked alongside Garrigan for five years when she taught kindergarten.

“As a teacher, she made me better,” Carpenter said. “She taught with compassion and understanding, while always being professional and putting students first. She’ll carry that over” in her role as principal.

“She’s very approachable. She doesn’t beat around the bush,” Carpenter said. “She just has this way of delivering her message in a way that people want to do their best for her.”